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Center for a Livable Future


A Framework for Understanding Grocery Purchasing in a Low-Income Urban Environment

Drew A. Zachary,  Anne M. Palmer,  Sarah W. Beckham, Pamela J. Surkan
Qualitative Health Research, February 2013

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Research demonstrates that food desert environments limit low-income shoppers’ ability to purchase healthy foods, thereby increasing their likelihood of diet-related illnesses. We sought to understand how individuals in an urban American food desert make grocery-purchasing decisions, and specifically why unhealthy purchases arise. Analysis is based on ethnographic data from participant observation, 37 in-depth interviews, and three focus groups with low-income, primarily African American shoppers with children. We found participants had detailed knowledge of and preference for healthy foods, but the obligation to consistently provide food for their families required them to apply specific decision criteria which, combined with structural qualities of the supermarket environment, increased unhealthy purchases and decreased healthy purchases. Applying situated cognition theory, we constructed an emic model explaining this widely shared grocery-purchasing decision process and its implications. This context-specific understanding of behavior suggests that multifaceted, system-level approaches to intervention are needed to increase healthy purchasing in food deserts.

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